“Monkeys” are the problems, issues, or challenges your employees bring you that somehow become your responsibility to manage and solve. Instead of the monkeys stopping by your office for a quick visit and going back home with their owners, they end up taking residence and you become responsible for their ongoing care.
I liked feeding monkeys because I thought I was helping people solve problems. Over time, I learned my good intentions were actually handicapping my employees from learning how to solve their own problems, resulting in me being overloaded with work.
There are three ways in which I developed that helped me stop feeding monkeys and I believe they can help you too.
1. Become a situational leader – There is no one best leadership style when it comes to managing people. People need different leadership styles depending on their competence and commitment on the specific goal or task at hand. Situational Leadership II teaches a leader to diagnose the development level (competence and commitment) of the employee and then use the appropriate leadership style (a combination of directive and supportive behavior) that will help the person develop from a beginner to an expert on the goal or task. If you don’t develop your employees’ competence and commitment in their job, they will always have to come to you to solve their problems.
2. Don’t grab responsibility – One way to look at managing monkeys with your people is to examine how the elements of responsibility and control interact (see my post Losing Control & Liking It – 4 Ways to Handle Responsibility & Control for a more in-depth treatment of the topic). Managers make the mistake of grabbing control of a monkey even though they aren’t responsible for it. Leaders often fall prey to this style of relating because they think they can “fix” people or situations. GRABing control may result in short-term wins, but over the long haul it stunts people’s development and creates a state of learned helplessness.
3. Facilitate self-reliant problem solving – Part of a manager’s job is to help people learn how to solve their own problems. Assuming the manager has been a situational leader and developed the employee’s competence, and isn’t grabbing control of something they aren’t responsible for, the next step is to facilitate the process of problem solving. First, it’s important to have a clear definition of the problem. Many times the symptoms of a problem are more evident than the root cause so it’s important to investigate the underlying issues. Second, ask open-ended questions to allow the employee to think through possible solutions. Many times people just need someone with an objective point of view to help them think through the situation.
In his book, The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, Ken Blanchard says “The best way to develop responsibility in people is to give them responsibility.” If you don’t let your people solve their own problems, they’ll always look to you to do it for them. Don’t feed the monkeys!